Published February 1, 2013. From Cook's Country.
Chili powder is essential for making perfect game-time chili, but many products fumble with weak, wan flavor. Do any score a touchdown?
Chili powder is a seasoning blend made from ground dried chiles and an assortment of other ingredients. Much like curry powder, there is no single recipe, but cumin, garlic, and oregano are traditional additions. Chili powder is not to be confused with the lesser-known chile powder (also often spelled chili powder), made solely from chiles without additional seasonings. We use the blend to season batches of chili and in spice rubs and marinades.
But which brand is best? Wanting a bold, complex powder with a warming but not scorching heat, we chose seven widely available chili powders (including two from industry giant McCormick) and tasted them sprinkled over potatoes—to assess each uncooked on a neutral base—and cooked in beef-and-bean chili. What did we learn?
Top picks won praise for bold heat; those we liked less we faulted as “meek.” Capsaicin is the chemical that gives chile peppers their heat; its strength is measured on the Scoville scale in Scoville heat units (SHU). We contacted each manufacturer to ask which peppers they use in their powders; three manufacturers deemed that information proprietary, but four were willing to share. Our top two products, which tasters liked for their “bold” heat, both use cayenne (30,000 to 50,000 SHU) in combination with milder peppers. The third- and fourth-place products use a single pepper named “6-4,” developed at New Mexico State University (300 to 500 SHU). The 6-4 wasn’t hot enough for our tasters. Manufacturers of the lowest-ranked products declined to reveal which peppers they use, but tasters found their heat levels lacking.
Yet a great chili powder is more than just heat. As we noted, our top two products used a combination of peppers to achieve complexity; both add paprika, which is made from dried sweet bell peppers (0 SHU), and one added ancho peppers (1,000 to 2,000 SHU). This layering of multiple peppers created depth that tasters preferred to the “flat” single-pepper powders.
Supporting spices also played a role. Manufacturers of two of the bottom three products also refused to share information about their “spices”; tasters found them sweet and not much else. Two less-preferred products branched off into Indian-influenced spice blends with coriander, cloves, and allspice. Tasters found these products “muddled” and their flavor odd in a bowl of chili. Our top picks stuck with the classics: cumin, oregano, and garlic, with minor deviations, such as black pepper and parsley. The supporting spices rounded out flavor, complementing the peppers without dominating or distracting from them. Our two recommended products had something else in common: no added salt; the bottom three products all added it.
We cannot recommend four of the seven chili powders we tasted, but our winner had a deep, roasty, complex flavor; subtle sweetness; and just the right amount of heat. We used it on its own to season a batch of chili that was “bright,” “sizzling,” and “full-flavored.”